December 13, 2018

Judd Apatow: Comedy drawn from an ‘Unfair Life’

Judd Apatow’s phenomenal success seems the result of a willed and desperate act of adolescent defiance against a childhood that threatened to destroy him.  Apatow was adrift in Syosset, Long Island, where his parents were always viciously fighting before they divorced when he was in junior high.  His mother left, and he remained with his father.  His brother, now an Orthodox Jew living in Israel, was sent to live with grandparents in California.  His sister went to live with their mother.  The family imploded, but before the final meltdown, he remembers a family malaise where his parent’s only advice was to keep repeating an annoying mantra about life being unfair.  Young Apatow had already figured that out, and the future producer, director, and writer of such stellar works as “The 40-Year-Old Virgin, “Knocked-Up,” and “This is 40” knew very early he was on his own in an unsafe world where he would have to make his own way.  Comedy called him, first as a chubby school boy who took solace watching the comediennes’ perform on the Merv Griffin show after school, and later on when he took special pleasure from their rebellious anger that somehow still managed to come across with a detached sense of cool.  He left for California after high school and tried to make it in the comedy clubs while attending USC and studying screenwriting.

Even after all of his success, Apatow is a restless 47-year-old man who continually looks for sparks to help him cope with his anxieties about matters large and small.  He has tried therapists and hypnotherapists and flirted with Buddhism and meditation and massage, but his nervousness remains.  His wife, the adorable Leslie Mann and his two precocious daughters, all of whom are frequently featured in his films, have provided some measure of comfort, but answers to his own misery remain elusive.  One senses that his friendships are guarded, and even his wife has confessed that he has often been emotionally absent from their marriage.  He tries his best with his daughters but admits he sometimes has trouble focusing on them after work when his mind drifts elsewhere.  He has recently returned to doing stand-up comedy and is enthused by the immediate charge it offers; an intensity he has trouble feeling while working on one of his movies.  He is also putting out a new book called “Sick in the Head Conversations about Life and Comedy” (Random House) which is a series of interviews he has held with comedy’s biggest legends.

But Apatow is a poor interviewer.  He interrupts too much, or lets his guest drone on.  He is a choppy talker and chaotic in his organization.  He switches the topic at odd moments, and reveals too much about himself or too little to the interviewee, which often leaves them feeling ill at ease.  Apatow isn’t trying to throw anybody off, but is a step out of tune with conversational flow.  When one of the comics gets rolling on the specifics of his comedic process, Apatow shifts gear.  When some of them attempt to empathize with what he has endured, he turns cold and we hear them grow quiet.  There always seems to be some sort or envy present; a one-upping one to his inquiries that is disquieting.  Yet, even with all this awkwardness where he seems to combine the worst traits of interviewers like Charlie Rose and Howard Stern with their feigned intensity, there are compelling moments.

Albert Brooks talks about his late in life happiness through meditation, but Apatow doesn’t seem convinced.  Chris Rock discusses his preference for keeping his act fresh even if it means leaving the stage for years at a time to come up with new material, which seems to frighten Apatow who we sense fears losing his relevance.  Gary Shandling, whom Apatow wrote for years ago, talks about his belief that what made his old television show spectacular was that the writers understood that what they needed to write about was what people tried to cover up.  This sounded like the beginning of an interesting conversation about the sophistication of certain comedy, but Apatow cuts him off.  Jeff Garlin actually confronts Apatow on his behavior by reprimanding him for not looking directly at him while he speaks.  Jay Leno seems frustrated by Apatow’s disappointment in Leno’s allegiance to stand-up comedy as his only goal. 

The reader will notice that although most of the interviews took place in the last two years, some are from the early 1980’s.  A brazen young Judd Apatow would call comics from his high school radio station in Long Island pretending to be from a major New York radio station, and scored interviews with big comics who didn’t know they were speaking on a 10-watt radio station that barely reached Apatow’s high school’s parking lot.  The funny thing is young Apatow sounds exactly like old Apatow.  It’s almost as if there has been no shift at all in perspective.  There is the same sad feeling of muted aggression and desire, but the older and younger selves seem interchangeable.  Perhaps that is Apatow’s real problem.  He never gets past himself.

Apatow is impressed by Seinfeld who writes every day on large yellow legal pads brief outlines of bits that will be polished to perfection.  He finds Seinfeld’s Zen-like persona troubling.  They are polar opposites.  Seinfeld insists he is a happy comic and works because it brings him pleasure and is simply who he is.  There is no hidden drama.  He explains to Apatow that he remains doing comedy because he loves the life it offers him; “the independence and the joy of hearing laughs and making jokes.  It’s as simple as that.”  But Seinfeld’s refusal to embrace the complexity of those drawn to perform stand-up is as disconcerting as Apatow’s mental chaos.

Jimmy Fallon stands out from the bunch as a genuinely happy and delirious clown from a happy and loving home.  Stephen Colbert rhapsodizes about how he learned not to lose heart after losing his father and two brothers in a plane crash while still a young child.  His mother slowly stitched his heart back together by reminding him to remain resilient even while accepting that all had changed.  Jon Stewart, who seems taken aback by Apatow’s brittleness, talks about how important it is for him to remain a good guy even though it grows harder with fame and money and the power to influence others.  Rosanne, whom Apatow also wrote for, discusses her mental illness and the strains show business success placed on her children. 

Apatow’s power has enormous reach, and the amount of comic luminaries who spoke with him are testimony to his elevated status in Hollywood where his films have grossed over a billion dollars.  But one senses Apatow would give a lot of that up to have the innate charisma and joy of his old roommate in Los Angeles; a young Adam Sandler.  He would often return home and find Sandler making phony phone calls and hanging up and exploding into gales of uninhibited laughter.  Usually, Sandler would be doing something silly like calling a Jewish deli in the voice of a kvetchy old Jewish lady pretending to be sick from one of their sandwiches and asking for another to be sent over.  For free, of course.  Apatow spotted a joy in Sandler, and a comic euphoria he could never emulate.  Perhaps that is why, before moviemaking, he turned to writing for other comics who had a more assured voice.  It was the twinkle in Sandler’s eyes that haunted Apatow; the delight he took in his own devilishness.  Apatow is still trying to find it.

Elaine Margolin is a frequent contributor of book reviews to the Jewish Journal and other publications.